Pyrenees

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Pyrenees

Pyrenees (pĬr´ənēz), Span. Pirineos, Fr. Pyrénées, mountain chain of SW Europe, 21,380 sq mi (55,374 sq km), between France and Spain, a formidable barrier between the Iberian Peninsula and the European mainland. The principality of Andorra is located among the peaks. Parts of six French departments and six Spanish provinces are in the Pyrenees region. Perpignan, Bayonne, and Orthez in France and Girona, Huesca, Pamplona, and Irún in Spain are other important cities. The Franco-Spanish border, unchanged since the Peace of the Pyrenees (1659), generally follows the watershed. The high stage of civilization reached in the Pyrenees by early humans is evidenced by the prehistoric cave paintings at Altamira and Aurignac (see Paleolithic art).

Geology and Geography

The chain extends in an almost straight line 270 mi (435 km) from the Bay of Biscay on the west to the Mediterranean Sea on the east; its maximum width is c.80 mi (130 km). About two thirds of its area is in Spain. Of the three main ranges of the Pyrenees, the central section is the highest. The Pico de Aneto, Spain (11,168 ft/3,404 m), is the tallest peak; other peaks include the Pic de Vignemale and the Pic du Midi d'Ossau (France) and Monte Perdido (Spain). The Cantabrian Mts. are a western extension of the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees were formed during the Tertiary period. Exposed crystalline rock is found in the uplands, while folded limestone composes the lower slopes. Glaciated in the distant past, the Pyrenees do not have any glaciers now. The permanent snowline is at an elevation of c.6,000 ft (1,830 m).

Characteristic of the French Pyrenees, which are much steeper than the southern slopes, are the torrents called gaves, often falling in cascades, and the natural amphitheaters known as cirques, notably the famous Cirque de Gavarnie. The more important rivers—the Garonne, the Aude, and the Adour—run north; among the Spanish rivers rising in the Pyrenees are the Aragón, the Cinca, and the Segre. The Pyrenees are a climatic divide. The northern slopes receive abundant rainfall while the southern slopes have a steppelike climate.

Crossings

The Pyrenees are crossed by two rail lines, but the chief rail lines connecting Spain with France skirt the Pyrenees along both coasts. A number of roads cross the Pyrenees; of the major ones, three use tunnels and four are through high passes that can become snowbound in winter and spring. Most of the mountain passes are high and difficult, but they were often crossed by invading armies and barbarian hordes and by innumerable medieval pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The Col de Perthus, used by the Romans, and Roncesvalles, famous for the Roland legend, are the best known.

Economy

The Pyrenees are rich in timber and in pastures, and the many streams are utilized by hydroelectric power stations. Talc and zinc are mined there. The population, partly of Basque and Bearnese stock, engages mostly in stock raising and agriculture. On the French side are the best-known resorts, such as Pau and Tarbes, famed both for the beauty of their scenery and for their mineral waters. Lourdes, one of the world's chief places of pilgrimage, is also there. On the Atlantic shore, below the W Pyrenees, are the fashionable resorts of Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz (France) and San Sebastián (Spain).

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